The last of Fritz Lang's three westerns, following THE RETURN OF JESSE JAMES and WESTERN UNION, RANCHO NOTORIOUS is a bizarre, strangely poetic, and highly personal ballad of a man transformed by revenge. Kennedy plays cowhand Vern Haskell who, at the film's opening, is flirting with his
fiancee (Henry), who works at the general store. Soon afterwards, two outlaws hold up the store, and when Vern returns, he learns that the woman "wasn't spared anything." Vern begins a quest for revenge and eventually finds one of the killers, shot in the back by the other. The man's last words
point him toward a criminal hideout, a ranch run by former barroom singer Altar Keane (Dietrich). Insinuating himself into the gang holed up at Altar's place, Vern attempts to find out which man killed his fiancee.
RANCHO NOTORIOUS combines the quintessential Lang theme of a man ruled by fate with the generic elements of the western. Although set in the West, it is not a classic western in the style of John Ford. Whereas Ford, along with other western-movie pioneers, has a sense of American mythmaking, Lang
is still absorbed in his German heritage, with its external, physical representation of inner turmoil. Like Lang's hero in THE BIG HEAT, Vern is a basically good man turned inside out by thoughts of revenge. In both movies, fate leads a man to express his dark side, bringing tragedy to a femme fatale (Gloria Grahame in THE BIG HEAT, Dietrich here) in the process.
Lang's experience with RKO and notorious studio head Howard Hughes was far from happy. Even though Lang was to have been consulted before any reediting was undertaken, the film was recut under producer Welsch's orders. Lang also had troubles with Dietrich, here playing an aging woman for the first
time. Like her Altar Keane character, Dietrich could not accept the effects of mortality, begging cameraman Mohr to make her look as lovely as he had for 1939's DESTRY RIDES AGAIN. Lang was no angel on the set, either; by the film's end he and Dietrich were not even speaking to each other.
None of those problems, however, appear to have affected the film. Dietrich's songs and performance are superb (especially fun is her first scene, in which she rides a man, as if on horseback, in a drunken barroom contest). Her portrayal of a woman torn between two men, and between youth and old
age, is a revelation, and the rest of the cast, especially Kennedy, is similarly excellent. The garish color is oddly effective in conveying the sense of gloom which hangs over so many of Lang's films. Missing from the credits was actor Lloyd Gough who, because he refused to testify before the
House Un-American Activities Committee, was blacklisted and had his name removed by Hughes.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: The last of Fritz Lang's three westerns, following THE RETURN OF JESSE JAMES and WESTERN UNION, RANCHO NOTORIOUS is a bizarre, strangely poetic, and highly personal ballad of a man transformed by revenge. Kennedy plays cowhand Vern Haskell who, at the film… (more)